Life Behind Bars

Four Delaware bartenders dish on serving The First State

Walk into most restaurants, and whether it’s a slow Tuesday afternoon or a busy Friday night, there’s usually something going down at the bar. Customers are laughing and carrying on, or yelling at the TV, or even singing along to the acoustic duo doing covers of Dave Matthews and Billy Joel.

In the center of it all is the bartender. He or she mixes drinks, pours beers, takes orders, conducts traffic, tell jokes, and in effect creates an environment that makes customers feel at home.

We spoke with four “lifers” with a total of more than 85 years behind some of Delaware’s most well-attended bars to find out what it’s like being the ringmaster of all this action. They revealed how they got started, what keeps them in the business, and described some unique tips they’ve received over the years. They also threw in some advice for today’s bar-hoppers.

Alan Rutherford, The Man at Kid’s

Just a little over 20 years ago, while he was waiting tables at Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Wilmington, Al Rutherford was offered a shot at tending bar during one of Kid’s famously busy Sunday brunches.

Anyone who has stopped in for steak and eggs between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday knows that the scene at Kid’s can be a dizzying display of servers, hostesses and kitchen staff working as a well-oiled machine.

For Rutherford, it was baptism by fire, but he survived it, would continue working nights while getting his master’s in physiology from the University of Delaware, and then would be faced with a decision to make when he graduated.

“Most people will tell you they get into bartending for the money, and I’m no exception,” says Rutherford. “The job offers I got when I graduated were for peanuts, so I decided to stay on at Kid’s, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Now 48, Rutherford hasn’t a single regret. He’s become as much a part of the bar scene at Kid’s as the comfy swivel chairs aligned on the back side of the bar itself. But aside from the money – Rutherford says Kid’s has been a “gold mine” – the North New Jersey native says you have to love people to be a good bartender.

“The best part of tending bar is the people, although the worst part of tending bar can also be the people,” says Rutherford. “I’d say 95 percent of the people are great; they come in to share their stories, hang out and have a good time. But of course you’ll always have that 5 percent of cantankerous folks that just don’t want to be nice. For each type of person, you have to be a professional and try your best to show them a good time.”

Over the years, some folks have had a little bit more of a good time than others. During the 1990s, when Kid’s was under different ownership (the Trolley Square icon is now owned by the Harry’s Restaurant Group), Kid’s featured a DJ Night on Thursdays that sometimes got a bit rowdy.

“Yeah, I remember seeing some girls get up on the bar on those crazier nights,” says Rutherford. “And I remember seeing some of those girls’ clothes come off. After a few incidents, we had to, um, discourage that. The ‘90s were a different time.”

Today Rutherford still enjoys his job, but does feel that the younger clientele has changed the relationship between bartender and customer, mostly because of the smartphone. They’re constantly on their phones, he says, and it comes off as rude.

“I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but the kids with the cellphones…it’s gone too far,” he says. “We used to have a no cellphone policy years ago, but that doesn’t fly anymore. I’d just say that if you’re gonna go out to the bar, enjoy your experience. Engage with your bartender, your friends, and the atmosphere. Kid’s is a really fun place to hang out, and I think you miss out on that if you’re constantly looking down at your phone the entire time.”

Matty Kasper, Starboard Icon

Drive down Route 1 through Dewey Beach just about any weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day and you’ll see a packed house and lines out the door for what is one of Delaware’s most popular bars, The Starboard. Somewhere buried among the throng of bikini-clad ladies and the dudes in swim trunks you’ll usually find Matty Kasper busy juicing hundreds of grapefruits and opening bottles of Bud Light.

It’s been that way for 18 summers, ever since Kasper, now 44, was offered a job bar backing (basically being a busboy for the bartender—getting him ice and other supplies, cleaning up after hours; a bartender starter job). That turned into a bartending gig a few summers later.

It’s been said that Starboard bartenders don’t quit; they simply die, implying that the gig is so coveted because of both the money and the excitement of working at such a busy establishment that no one ever leaves the job. Kasper agrees.

“It really is a phenomenal place to work, from the co-workers to the owners to the regular customers that come through here every summer,” says Kasper. “It’s like a big family here, which is kinda cool. The hours can be rough, but the pace of the place makes them fly by. However, if you want to be a bartender here, get in line.”

While The Starboard does great business for New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day weekend, things really kick off on Memorial Day weekend, when Dewey sees its annual flood of out-of-towners and vacationers looking to kick back and have a few adult beverages. Kasper says that three-day weekend is the longest stretch he works each year.

“The craziest shift is Memorial Day Sunday. We can’t serve booze until 9 a.m., but we’re open for breakfast at 8 a.m.,” says Kasper. “By 8:59 a.m., we have a line of 300 people around the building, and the waitresses already have pre-ordered drink tickets for their tables. Once it strikes 9 a.m., the floodgates open and it doesn’t stop until 1 a.m. the next day.”

He says that’s roughly a 22-hour shift, if you begin with a 7 a.m. call time and continue until all the checks are closed and the bar is cleaned Monday around 4 or 5 a.m. Though he doesn’t know how many crates of oranges or grapefruit the bar goes through to make its famous “Crush” drinks, Kasper says he’s been told by distributors that they sell the most Absolut Ruby Red vodka in the country to make the drinks.

When bartenders get busy, according to Kasper, they have a system of getting to patrons one by one, avoiding long waits for people based on when they belly up. However, if you’re at Kasper’s bar during a busy shift, one thing can guarantee you slow—or no—service: Yelling “Yo!” or calling him “Bro!” if you don’t know him.

“If people just stand there and smile, or raise their hand, I’ll get to them,” says Kasper. “It’s when you start yelling at me that I’ll likely tune you out and move on to the next person. I know you’re waiting there, and I’ll get to you, just be patient.”

Brian Ford, Mr. Main Street

Brian Ford is another lifer. For 23 years, Newark bar-goers could find him perched at Klondike Kate’s on Main Street. Every Thursday around 5 p.m., he’d have the same set of regulars who bellied-up and joined him and co-workers for what felt like a weekly private party.

Now down the street at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen, Ford finds himself in a slightly different environment. The hours are a little easier and the clientele is a little more grown up, but he still feels that being a good bartender comes down to a few fundamentals.

“For me, bartending is all about interaction with the guests, and getting to know people,” says Ford. “The drinks and food, to me, have always been secondary. You can get a Ketel and tonic or a chicken sandwich anywhere. But if you get to know your bartender, and maybe even become friends, you’ll go back again and again.”

The 44-year-old has certainly worked at enough bars—including Scratch Magoo’s, Firestone and the Columbus Inn in Wilmington—to know that guests can sit at any table and have a waiter or waitress serve them a burger. But to Ford, the bartender-customer relationship is different.

“A martini is just a martini, but if I ask what you do, ask your name, and get to know you a little, I guarantee it’ll be a more memorable martini than usual,” he says. “And I’m not just trying to start new relationships for better tips, but it usually does work out that way, which is great.”

Ford says he’s been rewarded heavily over the years for great service. Parents of a University of Delaware ice hockey team member once tipped him a thousand dollars for “looking after their son,” while another regular once offered him keys to a beach house in Key West.

“Don’t get me wrong, those kinds of tips are great, and I’m always very appreciative when someone goes out of their way to show their gratitude,” he says. “But a lot of younger bartenders today, from what I’ve seen, kind of expect 20 percent or more just for showing up. It doesn’t work that way.”

Ford says tips need to be earned, rather than expected. As the bar manager at Grain, he’s trying to instill the ideals of hard work, conversation, and relationship building with the next generation of bartenders.

“If you can get on a level with your customers where you become Facebook friends with them, or text them to go out and grab a beer the next time you’re not working, you’ve really gone above and beyond as a bartender,” says Ford. “When you’re tending bar, you should be having fun with the people around you. With two bars here at Grain, that’s our goal: to create a great atmosphere at each one.”

Nicol DiMarzio, Logan House Linchpin

Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly's Logan House. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
Nichol DiMarzio pours a Yuengling lager upstairs at Kelly’s Logan House.
(Photo by Anthony Santoro)

Now a 24-year veteran of the restaurant-and-bar business, Nicol DiMarzio’s start in the hospitality industry includes a bit of humor as well as a historic tragedy. Her first bartending shift took place in her home state of New Jersey, where a customer ordered a Bloody Mary, and after tasting it, asked for DiMarzio to make it hotter.

“I went in the back and microwaved the thing,” says DiMarzio, laughing. “I had no idea he meant make it spicier; that’s how naïve I was.”

So much for the humor. The tragedy was on a much greater scale. Her first “real shift” as a bartender, as she puts it, came just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, while she was working as a server at Kid Shelleen’s.

“One of the owners at the time had a son who died in the terrorist attacks,” says DiMarzio. “It was awful. But that Friday, we held a benefit and they needed an extra bartender. I guess they figured that for that kind of event, no one would complain if my service was slow on a Friday night. They threw me back there and I started working bar shifts the next week.”

For DiMarzio, bartending is about three things: interaction with guests, the money she’s made over the years, and avoiding the monotony of a corporate desk job. She’s now at Kelly’s Logan House, where she acts as manager much more often than she tends bar, but she still enjoys talking with people.

“I’m not the kind of person who would start up a random conversation with people on the street,” she says, “but get me behind the bar and I can’t stop talking with them. Just don’t call me sweetie, baby, or hon.”

Besides her disdain for pet names, DiMarzio also doesn’t like it when she hears people ask her co-workers about getting a “real job.” She says some customers don’t view waiting tables or tending bar as real careers, just because they’re not 9-to-5 desk jobs.

“I’ve had people ask me what I do for a living while I was tending bar,” she says. “I used to work for DuPont, but I couldn’t do the corporate desk thing. That’s probably one of the best parts of working in the restaurant industry: things are a little more relaxed, and you can joke around and have fun with customers.”

For DiMarzio, a good regular bar patron asks about how the bartender is doing, and has some respect for the job. After working at places like Six Paupers, Dead Presidents, Lime and even the long-forgotten Café Bellissimo, DiMarzio says the guests who treat bartenders the best usually get treated the best in return.

So to sum up: the perfect bartender is a professional—not some moonlighting amateur—who will lend a sympathetic ear, deliver a well-mixed drink in a timely manner, and expect an appropriate gratuity for his or her services. In return, customers are expected to be respectful, keep cell phone use to a minimum, and never, ever use the words “yo,” “bro,” “hon,” “baby,” or “sweetie” within earshot of the bartender.

By the Numbers – Jan. 2016

35 – The width, in miles, of the state’s widest point.

935,614 – Delaware’s population, according to a 2014 estimate.

82 – The number of museums in Delaware.

Preamble to the Constitution

1787 – The year Delaware became a state—on Dec. 7. Also the year it became first state to ratify the Constitution.

4 – The number of nicknames for Delaware: Diamond State, Blue Hen State, Small Wonder and First State.

14 – The number of state parks, which encompass a total of 20,000 acres.

Rehoboth Film Festival Offers 50+ Movies

Features from around the world include dramas, comedies and thrillers

On a cool night in the fall of 1997, five film fans met in Rehoboth and devised the idea of working with local restaurants to screen independent films. After spreading the word of this event to other film buffs and members of the coastal town’s community, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society was formed and the festival premiered in 1998.

Since then, the film society has expanded to a not-for-profit arts organization that sponsors a wide range of film programs for the community, including the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival. The society’s growing popularity made way for the Cinema Art House, a professionally designed theater that seats 108 and is set to open in early 2016.

This year, the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival celebrates 18 years of promoting cinematic arts and providing education and cultural enrichment. Featured this year will be more than 50 films, and genres include comedy, drama and thriller, imported from countries such as the United Kingdom, Iceland, Spain, Germany and India.

Set for Saturday, Nov. 7, through Sunday, Nov. 15, the festival will be held at several venues: Cape Henlopen High School, Metropolitan Community Church, Atlantic Sands Hotel, Inn at Canal Square, Lewes Canalfront Park, Rehoboth Art League, Rehoboth Beach Bandstand, Rehoboth Beach Public Library and South Coastal Library. All venues are within minutes of each other by car.

A Festival Pass is required each year to purchase tickets for the Film Festival. Six levels of Festival Passes are available, offering different benefits. The levels include: Director ($200), Producer ($90), Screen Writer ($40), Film Buff ($20), Student ($10) and Mini ($5). Valid for one individual, a pass allows the purchase of one ticket per film title. Members of the Film Society are not required to buy a Festival Pass. The final day to purchase a Festival Pass and Film Society membership is Nov. 5. After that, passes and memberships can be purchased at the Festival Box Office.

Although this event is fun for all ages, viewer discretion is advised, and each film will be rated accordingly. For more information, go to rehobothfilm.com/festival.html.

Remembering Their Roots

In the mid-to-late ‘90s, a group of talented young actors began learning their craft at the Wilmington Drama League. Twenty years later, they remain connected.

A hungry chicken walks into a McDonald’s.

“Do you have people nuggets?” the chicken asks.

“Umm, no…”

“Well, what kind of nuggets do you have?”

“Chicken nuggets.”

“Bwawk!” “Quack! Quack!” “Moooooo!” The chicken has brought reinforcements.

The cashier is an unwitting player in this bit of barnyard improv. Someone buys a milkshake to smooth things over, and the animals exit McDonald’s stage left and return to the Wilmington Drama League, where they will continue to rehearse The Ugly Duckling.
Twenty years later, that quacking duck is about to wrap his performance as the Big Bad in the rebooted Ghostbusters. Another member of that menagerie still performs with a chicken, five days a week on Sprout’s The Sunny Side Up Show.

And the hungry chicken? Aubrey is doing just fine, thank you.

Aubrey Plaza. Neil Casey. Carly Ciarrocchi. Keith Powell. John Gallagher, Jr. Rory Donavan. Seth Kirschner.

Aubrey Plaza at the Wilmington premier of Safety Not Guaranteed at the Grand. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Aubrey Plaza at the Wilmington premier of Safety Not Guaranteed at the Grand. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

If you live in Delaware, chances are excellent that you know someone who knows one of them, or you know one of them yourself. They certainly know each other, dating back to the time they all spent at the Wilmington Drama League in the mid-to-late ‘90s, through their early working days and their first big breaks, the awards, the steady work, the magazine covers, and genuine stardom … and back to Delaware for fundraisers and benefits and the occasional stop at the Charcoal Pit.

But let’s return to the beginning.

In the mid-‘90s, the Chrysalis Players were a new group within the Wilmington Drama League. Chrysalis was designed to give young performers an opportunity to write, cast, direct, act and produce their own shows and one-act plays. What they did with that freedom was up to them.

“We went crazy bananas creating things and building things and breaking things and ruining things,” Powell says.

And learning things. Chrysalis Players had their own board, which shadowed the board of the Drama League and had its own decision-making authority.

“We’re theater dorks,” Casey says. “So many people have their high school theater program. And I have that. But the Drama League was the place where the especially intense theater nerds from every school found their clubhouse.”

Many got their start in adult productions. John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom, Broadway’s Spring Awakening and American Idiot) first showed up on the Drama League stage as a boy in Frankenstein. An auspicious production of Peter Pan featured the debuts of Ciarrocchi (The Sunny Side Up Show), Powell (30 Rock, The Newsroom and Keith Broke His Leg) and Rory Donavan (Broadway’s Finding Neverland: The Musical).

“Unlike a sports team or something, when you’re working on a play, it’s a community of all ages that are basically equal,” Ciarrocchi says. “I took it so seriously as an 8-year-old.”

Ciarrocchi’s time included acting as a dwarf alongside her six real-life siblings and appearing as Milky White in a production of Into the Woods. (“That part is usually played by a cardboard cut-out,” she jokes.) But it was performing in the Jeff Walker Youth One-Act Festival where these kids found their creative incubator —and their place to shine.

“The one-act festival is the thing that was very unique to us as young people, and really influenced the reason why we’re all working still today,” Powell says. “I think that it gave us a sense that you can create things yourself. You don’t have to wait for someone.”

Cast of Characters

If you were casting those Chrysalis Players of the late ‘90s in a John Hughes movie, it wouldn’t be hard to see who would play what role. Johnny is the hot older guy, and the object of many a schoolgirl crush. Keith is the driven, focused one. Aubrey’s the oddball. Neil’s the comic relief.

“I became everyone’s younger, annoying brother,” admits Rory Donavan. “But the cool thing about the drama league kids is that we were all oddballs.”

Oddballs, perhaps—and certainly committed ones. At the time, few could have predicted how many would move on to mainstream success.

“Yes, often, we realized how incredibly talented the group of kids were who were here,” says Kathy Buterbaugh, the official adult-in-the-room with the Chrysalis Players back in the day. “We did not recognize fully how unique that talent pool was. We just figured it was everywhere. But it’s really not.”

Buterbaugh, the sole employee at the Wilmington Drama League to this day, keeps some of its secrets—but she doesn’t keep them very close to the vest. She says she quietly permitted the barnyard invasion of McDonald’s (though she did insist that a milkshake be purchased). She’ll tell you about the performance of Cinderella when Plaza eschewed the original choreography in the final performance to launch into the Macarena. She knows about the time a bunch of Delaware girls with stars in their eyes went to see Gallagher in Spring Awakening and hung around the stage door to bring him a Charcoal Pit chocolate milkshake—packed in dry ice, no less.

And unlike the rest of Delaware, she’s never surprised to see them popping up on talk shows or movie trailers—possibly because she doesn’t own a TV. “When I catch what they’re doing, it’s intentional, so I have to Hulu them or whatever,” she says.

Many of those Chrysalis Players embarked on different education and career paths after their days with the Wilmington Drama League—but the time spent and lessons learned in that building on the corner of Market Street and Lea Boulevard stayed with all of them.

“The thing is that it made for a very natural transition for a lot of us—Seth and me and
Aubrey—to the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York, which is underneath a grocery store,” Casey says. “It’s just a moldy 200-seat black box in a not particularly nice area in the Penn Station region of Manhattan.”

But it had that familiar spirit of people coming together to put on a show. And it felt like home.

Breaking Big

Keith Powell remembers the night in an apartment in Astoria—“on that one block in Astoria Queens where everyone in Delaware seemed to move to”—sitting among alumni of the Wilmington Drama League and watching TV as Gallagher won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, wishing his friend Seth (that would be Seth Kirschner) a happy birthday during his acceptance speech.

It was the first big trophy won by any of them, but it wasn’t the first time their private and professional and Delaware lives would cross. Some things you might expect—like Kirschner and Plaza both appearing on 30 Rock with Powell. But far more often, you’ll see them supporting each other in small, self-produced work. There’s the Upright Citizen’s Brigade show “That’s My Booze” starring Kirschner and Plaza … and directed by Casey.

There’s Powell and Plaza popping up in the YouTube video “The Dark Side of Ring Pop,” shot by Kirschner. And the web series “Keith Powell Directs a Play” stars Plaza and Kirschner.

They act, write, direct and produce in a digital world that didn’t exist when they were performing at the Drama League, but for which they were uniquely prepared to flourish.
And—always—they had each other.

“I think what makes us particularly unique was that we all inspired each other, and we all allowed ourselves to be inspired by each other,” Powell says. “I think we’re all each other’s cheerleaders.”

He remembers giving Plaza advice on getting an agent when she appeared on 30 Rock. Ciarrocchi remembers getting pointers on improv from Plaza when she was going to school in Chicago. Donavan learned from all of them when he was running around the Drama League starting fires. (Note: He denies starting actual fires.)

“Being younger and looking up to them, everyone was the most talented thing I’d ever seen,” Donavan says. “And looking back, they were.”

And though a few have become household names, they continue to be cheerleaders for talent from Delaware. In conversation, every single person interviewed for this story dropped a name of someone else who’s in the entertainment industry and working and doing well: Filmmaker Jeremy O’Keefe. Actor/playwright Patrick Flynn. Actress/musician Heather Robb.

“The big secret in this business is that people are working and making a living long before people stop feeling sorry for them,” Casey says.

Finding Home

About 20 years have passed since the birth of the Chrysalis Players, and young playwrights and actors and set designers still gather in that building off Market Street, rehearsing one-act plays in the wings, in the lobby, in the offices—anywhere they can find space.

Buterbaugh tells the youngsters stories of Plaza and Casey, Powell and Ciarrocchi, Gallagher, Donavan and Kirschner, and how they left the cocoon, spread their wings, and learned to fly.

“They’re unintentionally inspiring a whole new generation of artists,” she says. “The youngest director in this year’s one-act festival was probably 12.”

They all come back to visit—usually in a low-key fashion, but sometimes to premiere a movie, headline a fundraiser or to direct a show. And they hold onto what they took from the Drama League —sometimes literally.

“I think I still have it,” Casey says. He’s talking about the duck costume. “If my mom threw it out, she didn’t tell me.”

Some are returning for the long haul. Donavan just bought a home in Wilmington, from where he’ll commute to continue working in Broadway’s Finding Neverland. After years of professional work, he recently directed Young Frankenstein for The Milburn Stone Theater in North East, Md., and the return to community theater refreshed him.

“The sole reason everyone is there is that they love theater,” he says. “And it’s so nice to go back and rediscover that.”

 

AUBREY PLAZA
• You know her as: April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation.
• You should see: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates with Anna Kendrick, and Dirty Grandpa with Robert De Niro, her two upcoming movies.
NEIL CASEY
• You know him as: A writer (and occasional player) on Saturday Night Live, Inside Amy Schmuer and Kroll Show.
• You should see: Ghostbusters, where he’s the bad guy.
KEITH POWELL
• You know him as: James “Toofer” Spurlock on 30 Rock.
• You should see: Keith Broke His Leg, his new web series.
JOHN GALLAGHER JR.
• You know him as: Jim Harper on The Newsroom.
• You should see: James Gunn’s The Belko Experiment. (He’s also popped up with some music gigs in New York and Philly lately.)
CARLY CIARROCCHI
• You know her as: Carly on The Sunny Side Up Show.
• You should see: The show “moving” to the city. (Your 4-year-old is very excited.)
RORY DONAVAN
• You know him as: An ensemble player in Finding Neverland on Broadway.
• You should see: Whenever he gets to fill in as Captain Hook.
SETH KIRSHNER
• You know him as: Josh on NBC’s Lipstick Jungle.
• You should see: His starring role in the indie romantic comedy Completely Normal.